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Camp homesickness

Parent asks: 'How can I prepare my child for her first time away from home?'

Q: My child is getting ready to leave for sleepaway Bible camp for the first time.

I'm already sensing that she'll be homesick.

How can I help prepare her for her time away from home?

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A: It's natural for kids, especially younger, first-time campers, to miss home for the first few days of camp.

Reassure your daughter that she'll be safe with her counselors and that she'll have fun with new friends.

Tell her you'll be waiting for her when camp ends, and keep an upbeat attitude.

Tuck a letter of encouragement into her suitcase/bag. Your camp also likely has daily mail delivery (both U.S. postage and email).

Don't prolong your goodbye at drop-off; stretching out your departure can add more stress to your child's start of camp.


Comments

Karen Saupe

Karen Saupe

Posted at 1:42 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/28/2011

I've served as summer youth program director at Camp Mowana (Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio) for 12 years. Here are a few things I've learned that some parents might find helpful:

Some campers feel that homesickness is a measure of loyalty to family. It's good for them to know that the family wants them to enjoy camp. Parents can encourage success by saying "We're excited for you to spend these days at camp, and we will be eager to hear about all your adventures when you get home."  (The more you talk about missing them, the more they are invited to feel guilty about leaving you.)

Campers who have never been to camp often feel anxious about the unknown. If you can visit the camp ahead of time to see the facilities and perhaps meet some staff, try to do so. If you can view pictures of the camp online, do so. If you know other children who have been to that camp and can tell your child a bit about the schedule, the menu, the facilities, or the activities, that helps.

A little homesickness IS normal, and it's probably good to let your child know that it's okay if he or she feels a little of that at camp. If you've ever been homesick yourself, maybe you can tell your child about how you got past that. (I have plenty of well-adjusted, competent counselors who remember being VERY homesick their first time or two. Finding ways to cope with discomfort might be one of the more important skills camp offers. That said, a good camp staff provides the love and security that makes that growth possible.)

It's important for your child to know that camp counselors care about campers and are good at taking care of them. As one of our wise volunteers recently commented, one lesson campers learn is that there are adults besides their parents who can provide them with love and security and keep them safe.

Camps have different policies on phone calls, but I've found that more often than not, calling home makes things worse rather than better. There are exceptions - particularly when there is some uncertainty back home about a relative's health, etc. But I would strongly encourage you NOT to promise or even suggest that the camper can call home. A good camp counselor has effective strategies for helping campers focus on the camp community; campers who are "plugged in" and feel secure do better than campers who are constantly thinking about home. The phone call reminds them of what they are missing, so we try instead to help them think about what they can enjoy and look forward to at camp.

Letters/emails are great, particularly when they are upbeat (again: "We hope you're having a great time - have you gotten to go swimming? Are you looking forward to the campfire? Have you learned any new games or crafts or songs?"). Too many letters can overwhelm a camper, but two or three a week are just enough to be special.

I'm not sure I'd tuck a surprise note into the luggage, though - if it's discovered at dinnertime or bedtime (most common homesick times, since that's when kids usually see their parents), it can trigger homesickness rather than providing the intended encouragement. Sometimes parents mail a letter a few days before camp starts so the camper will receive it early in the week. Many camps have a designated mail call time each day, and that's a good time to get a letter.

Don't panic if you get a "Camp Grenada" letter early in the week telling you how miserable your child is and begging you to pick him up. Attitudes change quickly as campers get used to being at camp--and most kids won't bother to write you when they are having fun. Feel free to call the camp and ask someone to check up on your child, though, if you are worried about how your child is doing. 

If your child is a first-time camper and your camp offers a half-week or single overnight experience, consider trying that first - if the camper is left wanting more, then next year is easy.

Above all, build up the first-time camp experience as something to be proud of, even when it involves some challenges. I heard a beaming 6-year-old last Friday announce to his mom, "I DID it! I stayed a WHOLE WEEK at CAMP!"

I'm eager to learn more about how to help campers through their homesickness, so I'll be eager to see other comments.

Marilyn Miller

Marilyn Miller

Posted at 2:59 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/2/2011

When I was a young child I went to 4-H camp and later I became a camp counselor there.  Our camp had a unique way of keeping the kids from being upset when parents left to go home after dropping their kids off at camp.  There was a time span when parents could drop off their kids, help them get settled in their cabins, etc.  Then it was swimming time.  The parents would accompany their kids to the camp swimming pool and watch them for a short while.  When the kids were having fun in the pool the parents would tell their child that they had to leave but they would be back to pick them up when camp was over.  The parents would slip away quietly and the children would go back to having fun in the pool.  I don't remember there being any tears when the parents left.  In other words, putting the kids in a situation where they were having lots of fun when the parents left seemed to make the transition easier.

Another suggestion to parents - if the child can go to camp with one of their friends or someone else that the child knows it is easier for the child.  Except for my first year as a camper I always went to camp with a friend.  My first year as a camper I knew nobody when I got there.  They put me in a cabin with someone else who didn't know anyone, introduced us to each other,and we became good friends during camp.  When we left camp we exchanged phone numbers and continued our friendship beyond the camp.  Camp staff can make a difference in how much a child enjoys camp and doesn't get homesick by doing that small thing - putting together two children who don't know anyone and let them become friends.  One more thing - if the child knows one of the counselors it makes it easier.  My younger sister went to camp for the first time when I was a counselor.  She was not in my cabin,  The cabins were grouped together for activities and her cabin was not in my group.  We saw each other at the dining hall and at entire camp group activities (like evening campfire) but that was pretty much it.  We each went our own separate ways during camp.  Yet, she wasn't homesick because she knew that I was nearby in case she had a problem.  I don't ever remember her going to me for anything during camp but it was reassurance to her that if she really did need me I was not far.  And she never needed me - she just needed reassurance that I was nearby.

One more thing - I absolutely loved to get letters when I was at camp.  The letters weren't about missing me but about what was going on with my family - crazy things someone said or who won a game of monopoly, etc.  The letters showed me that I hadn't been forgotten.  Family cared enough to write.

 



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